Power of the People: How Truckee Tahoe locals are taking to beaches to clean up litter left by visitors
by Michelle Gartner
Photos by Danielle Hankinson
Citizens throughout history have stepped up to protect one of the clearest lakes in the world, Lake Tahoe. Around the turn of the 20th century, John Muir, along with others, lobbied for over 30 years to designate Lake Tahoe as a National Park.
With the 1960s came the loss of 50% of the Rowland’s Marsh, Lake Tahoe’s largest filter. According to a UC Davis report, the last time Lake Tahoe clarity measurements averaged over 100 feet was 1968.
By the ’90s the Environmental Protection Agency had given the Truckee River, Lake Tahoe’s only outlet, the rating of “polluted.”
And it was just two years ago that the Tahoe Environmental Research Center first measured microplastics in the beach sand lining Lake Tahoe, the same year the Desert Research Institute discovered microplastics in the lake water itself.
This year, the 2019 State of the Lake reported visibility measurements averaging only 62.7 feet.
MORE PEOPLE, MORE TRASH
In 2011, anywhere from 3 million to 5 million people visited Lake Tahoe. The number varies when looking at data from the Forest Service, the EPA, or various tourism groups. A detailed report provided by the Tahoe Prosperity Center takes some of the same data points and combines them with new cell phone data gathered by the Tahoe Transportation District, Caltrans data and Nevada DOT data.
In 2017, they came up with some very different numbers.
Tahoe Prosperity Center estimated there could be as many as 60 million people entering the Tahoe basin each year. Splitting up this data, an estimated 18.5 to 22 million shows most are likely tourists and second homeowners and the rest are split among work, business and local travel.
These visitors have likely brought a few water bottles along for their trip. Based on U.S. plastic bottle use alone, the amount of single-use plastics is increasing at a rate of more than 5% each year.
Colin West has seen plastics pile up.
While organizing beach cleanups in Belize, where garbage was often tucked away from the eyes of tourism, West said, “walk to an unknown parcel of land on the beach and you’d be 10 feet deep in plastic bottles.” Comparatively to Central America, “it doesn’t look that dirty in Tahoe.”
That’s largely due to the ongoing efforts of people who rally together to clean Big Blue’s and Donner Lake’s beaches.
In 2016 posts documenting the litter issue and the increase in visitors became a regular occurrence on social media, some accompanied by images of abandoned garbage, overflowing trash bins, large household items left on street corners or in empty lots and mama bears teaching their babies how to dumpster dive.
And when the snow melts, and when it rains, much of the filth flows onto the beaches or into the lake.
At the sight of such trash piling up, it didn’t take long for locals to take action.
EXPANDING THE EFFORT
After about a year of documenting complaints and getting nowhere when contacting local officials, Court Leve, who started the Truckee Tahoe Litter Group, rallied the State Parks. He organized a meeting to ask hard questions about why litter is an ongoing issue and what can be done. What was discovered was that several open maintenance positions remained vacant across multiple agencies and one possible reason, wages weren’t high enough to attract workers.
Through multiple Facebook groups, people posting photos of trash piles learned they weren’t alone in their cleanup efforts. Many locals carry bags with them and regularly clean up the streets while walking their dog or heading to the post office.
In 2018, Colin West realized the “official” Tahoe cleanups, run by various local jurisdictions each year just weren’t enough. West began organizing regular beach cleanups in Kings Beach.
Through that effort, West noticed garbage in the shallow waters and shared a turning point, “I heard about a cleanup that was happening, it was a scuba cleanup, and they pulled 600 pounds of garbage from Bonsai rock. I was just blown away! I was like Oh my gosh, I thought Tahoe was really clean in comparison, but it must not be.” This changed his focus from on the beach to under the water.
Clean Up The Lake, fronted by West, began cleanups in Lake Tahoe this year, but because of COVID-19 had to postpone completing the circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe.
Clean Up The Lake’s new partners, 12-year-old Ella Hoyer and her 10-year-old sister, Olivia, now organize weekly cleanup crews at Donner Lake and assist in pivoting West’s focus from Lake Tahoe.
“Ella was that final kick in the butt to get up to Donner,” said West.
West helped the Hoyers navigate the politics involved in getting cleanup stewardship signs approved for the 37 public docks on Donner Lake. He laughed in saying, “She was my boss for a bit. I was like Ella; how do you like the sign? ‘Well, you need to change this and this,’ I’m like ‘Yes ma’am!” West said, raising his hand and saluting.
Ella presented her idea to Clean Up The Lake Board of Directors and West confessed, “I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of the Board of Directors, but I did definitely get tears welling up in both eyes watching Ella just totally kill it at 12 years old.”
ASKING PEOPLE TO ‘BE THE CHANGE’
The litter issues have been escalating as visitors keep congregating on the beach amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Some recent Facebook posts displayed the escalating tensions:
Jennifer Siren Kallmens wrote, “Why are our state parks not monitored by rangers who can fine people?”
“Na it’s cool there’s more of us who care than the people who litter,” Bombi Bombay wrote. “I’ve met hella likeminded folks these days doing our own beach patrols. ‘Be the change you wish to see.’”
Sean “Chango” O’Brian started Monday morning Kings Beach Clean Vibes.
“I see the battles back and forth on social media and when you tell people what to do it’s not always as effective as leading people and showing people this is what we can do,” Chango said.
Kings Beach Clean Vibes Crew is a group of community members who saw a problem with the way their beach was being left by visitors. Rather than be upset about it, they decided to lead by example. Their goal is to be the change they want to see in their community.
In Truckee, Erica Mertens Recycling Program Manager, Town of Truckee noticed more community interest in keeping things clean. She said, “We have a very unique community, a very engaged community,” and in the 4 1/2 years she’s been with the town, “that’s the thing I’ve seen change the most.”
Kings Beach Clean Vibes Crew cleanup is 8-10 a.m. every Monday at Kings Beach State Recreation Area, fueled by doughnuts and coffee.
Truckee Litter Corps (TLC), cleanups happen the first Saturday of each month. Volunteers meet at a designated location beginning at 8 a.m. to pick up T-shirts and get instructions. The North Tahoe Clean Team Facebook group also posts local cleanup efforts.
More information on the Clean Up the Lake group is available on its Facebook group, or by filling out a form on its website http://www.cleanupthelake.org.
Donating to Adopt A Mile, will support Clean Up the Lake’s 72-mile scuba cleanup of Tahoe.
A GoFundMe page that went live July 3 affords Clean Up the Lake’s work on Donner Lake and will help the Hoyer girls install anti-litter signs on each of the lake’s 37 public piers. Funds left over from installing the signs will be spent on extending the underwater cleanup of the lake.
“Ella built out a calendar for all the docks at Donner,” Ella and Olivia’s mom, Debbie Hoyer said. “We supply buckets (so we don’t use plastic bags) and the grabbers for their clean up that day. She makes sure that the volunteers are rotating through the docks evenly, so all areas get picked up. We have been trying to keep the shore cleanup effort amongst our close circle of friends and families as opening this up to the public could become a bear of a project for Ella.”